Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7

Mind Games

Taz was out riding fence a few days after alerting the general to the latest cuts when his vigilance paid off. At first he considered that the men could be Rowdy's fence riders. He was certain until he came closer to the culprits. A dozen cattle were only a few yards away when he saw one of the men dismount to cut the wire.

Taz charged up on Cyclone, jumping off his steed before she'd come to a complete halt. He continued to charge the three men, who were so intent on cutting the fence they failed to notice the approaching cowboy until they heard Cyclone being pulled up short.

As quick as they looked up from the wire, the man with the wire cutters turned to launch them at Taz's head, scoring a bulls eye. The blunt end of the instrument collided with Taz's head just above his right eye. He dropped like a rock.

The horse nudged Taz back to consciousness with her damp nose. The next time Taz opened his eyes, he was looking into Cyclone's face. Still dazed, it took some time for him to recover enough to stand and overcome his dizziness.

"Oh, man, what the hell hit me?"

Taz didn't have a clear memory of what happened to him. When he touched his head throbbing head, he almost passed out. The fingers of his leather glove came back coated in blood. He used his shirt sleeve to wipe away the blood.

He reached for his hat, shoving it in place, wincing as the brim hit the wound. The saddle horn acted as a stabilizer as he wondered how he got back on his horse. Cyclone turned her head to where she could see the dizzy cowboy. Hanging there with less than a clear idea of what he was doing, he saw the wire cutters lying on the ground.

"You bastards," he growled, climbing down to shove the cutters in his saddle bags; he knew what happened.

He mounted his horse, wobbling in the saddle before squeezing her sides with his thighs as he guided Cyclone through the breach in the fence.

"Come on, girl. We got to catch those guys."

The idea of going for help never came to mind. The last time he went for help they missed the rustlers. This time he was going to catch up with them and at least be able to identify them. He did regret not having taken a six shooter the last time he was at the ranch house. He didn't want to kill them, but he would if he had to.

Taz knew he couldn't be far behind the rustlers, but he had no idea of how long he was unconscious. Periodically he touched his right hand to his temple to see if he was still bleeding. He wiped the blood on his jeans and tried not to lose the trail, although even pouring rain made tracking a dozen cattle a job a blind man could have done.

He couldn't be sure about much, except more cattle had been stolen and he wasn't sitting still for it. He had damn little to do and not losing cattle was one thing he wanted to do better. The bad guys just couldn't be allowed to make a clean getaway again.

The odds of three to one never occurred to Taz. They were probably out of wire cutters to throw at him, and he was confident that John Wayne would do no different than what he was doing; but John Wayne made movies, and it was all fantasy, which didn't occur to him either. The rustlers were also carrying sidearms and would be happy to use them if necessary. What was necessary to Taz was to catch them. It was also his job.

It didn't take long for Taz to realize that leaning over to look at the tracks the cattle made was not a good idea. He expected that since he was hit in the head, the more time that passed the better things would get; but like so many of Taz's ideas, this one was ill-conceived. The farther he went the dizzier he became, until his horse wandered to a stop.

Cyclone once against looked over her shoulder at him, watching to see what came next. Standing out in the rain wasn't her favorite activity. Taz didn't feel the rain. Unlike Cyclone, he had a hat, but as they sat there, it began to pour, and this he couldn't ignore.

"What are you doing?" he asked his horse. "Why are we sitting here?"

A minute later they weren't sitting there. Taz was lying on his back on the ground as the rain poured. He still held Cyclone's reins. She looked down at him, wondering, what next?

"Giddy up," he said softly, before passing out.

Cyclone snorted her disapproval, but Taz was unaware.

Taz didn't remember being unseated. He didn't remember he was following rustlers. All he knew was he was flat on his back looking up at… Indians… Indians? 'What would John Wayne do?' he wondered.

The rest was bits and pieces of bits and pieces. Taz thought he was awake, but he couldn't be sure. Was he dreaming?

One of the Indians had his hat. Was he about to be scalped? His close cut hair would hardly be a prize for a warrior's belt. This had to be a dream. Cyclone snorted. Taz closed his eyes to see if opening them again might change the dream and make the Indians disappear. Once closed, his eyes didn't open up for some hours.

When he did open them, he was flat on his back, looking up into the point of some kind of tent-like enclosure. It had to be inside, because he wasn't all wet any longer, or was that part of the dream? In fact he was all naked and lying on something soft. He reached for his head and almost passed out as the pounding became apparent; he wasn't sure if he was in danger of dying, but it had to be less painful than this.

This time he remembered the wire cutters immediately. It was progress. He'd caught the rustlers. Well, he hadn't exactly caught them, but he did know what hit him, not that it helped the pain in his head; and where was he?

He closed his eyes and opened them again, turning his head slightly. The Indians were back. He lay still, watching an Indian woman preparing something over a fire that had everything toasty warm.

The rain did tend to make it a little too cool, especially if you laid out in it for any length of time. It started raining and it didn't seem like it was going to stop any time soon. The raindrops pelted the teepee and Taz decided the fire was fine, but where was he?

'It's a teepee.'

"What's going on?" Taz finally said, figuring if they were going to torture him, they'd have done it already.

The woman moved away from the fire. Another woman kept her distance and looked at Taz lying very still with only his lips moving, because it hurt too much to move anything else.

"I… won't… hurt… you," Taz said, in a voice like how cowboys spoke to Indians in the movies.

He spoke quite slowly so the Indians didn't miss any words.

The Indian sitting nearest to the fire smiled, amused, and stifled his desire to laugh. He'd seen those movies. Hiding his amusement, he decided to go along with a characterization he'd never experienced before, to see where it might go.

"You fall off horse. You hurt. We fix. Me M.D.," the man said in his best impersonation of his forefathers attempting English with experts in the language.

"Me grateful," Taz said, thinking grateful might be misunderstood. "Me happy" was the only other word that came to mind.

He tried to smile to make sure they understood, but he wasn't sure he did. It made him wince when he tried.

He wondered what the hell, 'me M.D.' might mean. His Indian was a bit rusty and that rang no bell.

Both women long ago put their hands up to their mouths to hide their broad smiles and stifled laughter. The man stood, moving something away from the fire and turning his back. When he turned, he moved toward Taz, who was trying to figure out what it was he took out of the fire.

Taz braced himself for when the torture might begin. He was out of kilter and not in the mood for conflict.

"You drink. Old Indian remedy. Make well quick. You drink now."

If they were going to poison him he'd just as soon get it over with. He was too weak to fight the large man who moved his hand under Taz's head to lift it off the bedding. The cup was brought up to his lips. There was a familiar smell he wasn't certain of at first.

Taz coughed, almost choking, and spit out the concoction, not because it was poison but because it was a complete surprise.

"It's coffee," he complained. "It's got cream and sugar in it. I drink mine black."

"Hey, didn't want you drinking boiling coffee, cowboy. I'll do better next time," the Indian said in very plain English.

In fact his English was better than Taz's.

"What's going on?" Taz asked, suddenly forgetting about his headache.

"Someone saw your horse standing out there. Indians notice things like that. Just seeing a horse with a saddle, standing there in the middle of nowhere, an Indian has to ask himself, 'what the hell is he doing there? Are the white eyes trying to pull a fast one? Confuse us? Our natural inclination is to go take a look-see. We been snuck up on before.

" We went to investigate and there you are lying on the ground. An Indian's got to ask himself, 'What the hell is he doing out on a day like this?' and then I remember you're a white man. In keeping with my wise Indian veneer, 'What are you doing out here, cowboy?'"

"I was chasing rustlers," Taz said, thinking it sounded odd as soon as he said it, but then again, he was telling an Indian.

"And I thought my story sounded foolish. You were chasing rustlers? Maybe I need to call in our medicine man and his psychiatric support staff, but alas, I'm he. The M.D. is real. It's required before you get a license to shrink heads, or in your lingo, become a headshrinker.

" You can change your story if you want. I haven't written anything down yet. I'm not hard to please. We're relatively easy Indians. We even ask permission to camp out on the land that has belonged to our people as far back as the sun first rose and the grass first grew," he said in an all knowing voice. "I'm Jeremy by the way."

"I was chasing rustlers!" Taz insisted, feeling his head to see if it was still where it belonged. "It sounds stupid but that's what I was doing."

"That does explain the way you were talking. We speak English these days and in case you're worried, we haven't been on the warpath in nearly a hundred years. That whole violence thing didn't go well for us."

"Where am I?" Taz asked with uncertainty.

"We are on a quest. A few weeks a year we get in touch with our roots. Live simple like our forefathers. You know, back to nature and all the good stuff. It's good for the soul but a little hard on my back, sleeping on the ground. There's a motel down the Interstate a ways I might investigate after the rest of my people go to sleep tonight."

"Where'd you learn to speak English?" Taz inquired, noticing the rich, well thought out sentences.

"Brown University and I did graduate work at Yale."

"Yale?"

"Look, our full time medicine man didn't show up. Coffee's about the best I can do. I bandaged your head, which didn't require much more than first year medical training, but you should see a doctor to be sure you don't have a concussion.

"We shot a deer yesterday and have some fresh grilled venison, but maybe you should stick with coffee for the time being. Get something on your stomach before eating. Vomiting would be a bad sign. I learned that in my second year. Vomiting is never good."

"I'll be okay," Taz said, not having much faith in doctors.

"I'm Jeremy Goodstar. You're that soldier. Aren't you?"

"How'd you know that?"

"I'd tell you about our rich Indian traditions again, or I could just say we know stuff, see things, you know, but honestly, we read these days. In fact, there's a copy of the cover of Time magazine with your picture on it framed in our waiting room.

"The nurses think you're cute. I don't see it myself. Besides, with that haircut, a dead give away by the way, you're a soldier all right. You can't fool Indians.

" Your hair is a great disappointment, I might add. Going back to our roots has me wanting to get a hold of any white man's hair right away, but yours is hardly worth the effort. Makes my heritage seem like a waste of time, but I'll adjust. You learn that as a shrink."

Taz laughed, realizing how ridiculous he must sound to a college graduate.

"What's with camping out here in the middle of nowhere?" Taz wanted to know, to get the Indian's story.

"We aren't exactly in the middle of nowhere. This was once our territory, you know. We ran free here before you folks came and fenced it all off. Before you brought your cattle out here to raise, the prairie was full of buffalo, but you white folks have a problem with anything roaming free and the buffalo didn't do as well as the Indians, and we got slaughtered."

"That all happened before I got here. I was more wondering about why you're out here now? Not that I'm objecting. I'm glad you're here. You probably saved my ass. I could have laid out there and died."

" We do our best not to disturb anything, but you seemed in need of help. 'Out of sight out of mind' seems to work best for us Indians in most cases. We never saw any future in getting too worked up over who pretends to own which part of the Teton Sioux Territory. We figure we own it all and are just lending it to you folks.

" By the way you're going at present you won't last another hundred years. We'll just take it all back one day, after you guys go back to wherever you came from."

"I came from that way," Taz said, pointing in the direction where he figured the line shack to be. "I was tracking some rustlers. They stole Gen. Walker's cows. I need to get them back. I'm responsible. You ain't seen no cowboys with a bunch of cows come this way?"

"Now that you mention it, they passed here four or five hours ago. They're up over the next rise in an abandoned shack. It's got enough of a roof to keep them out of the weather, which seems like what they're looking to do. The cows are just standing around not minding the weather at all. The grass is very nice there.

"We've sent a rider to let the general know we've captured you and we'll bargain to give you back for some beads and one of those glasses you see yourself in."

"Very funny. You know the general?"

"Yeah, he lets us visit our land any time we want to hold our rendezvous, but there's something about a friendly white man that doesn't sit right with us. Indians are very suspicious, especially when it comes to white men. Mind you, we know he's one of the good ones, but you can't convince some Indians there are good white men. They're all such… such… savages. No insult intended. I'm sure you're a good one too," Jeremy said.

"None taken. I was in Vietnam. I saw what happens in war. I know it's not like when we fought you guys, but war is war."

"Standing Bear and Tom Kelly were two that I know, who went to Vietnam. They may recognize you. I subscribe to Time. You were a regular feature for months, but I didn't recognize you at first without your uniform and that rifle. That was a big sucker."

"That was all bizarre. It has nothing to do with who I am," Taz assured him. "I was in the army. It's what they wanted me to do. Beat getting shot at."

"No, popular media isn't very representative of reality, but it is what the white man insists on wasting his time with. 'Just give me entertainment and don't make me think or my head will hurt.' That attitude is why we'll get this country back one day."

"What are you doing out here?" Taz asked, not seeing Jeremy as an Indian just because he wore buckskin.

His English was too good for him to be a wild Indian. Taz was certain there was a story that went beyond him being an Indian.

"We have this idea that we should recapture our cultural experience, bring our people home, and reconnect with our spirituality. I don't mean full-time or as a requirement, but as a way to make the world we're in a little less intolerable. The fresh air is nice, once you adjust to it. It's not easy at first, breathing air you can't see."

"They took the land away from you a long time ago. How do you figure you're going to get it back?"

"If we're patient enough, we'll get it back. First and foremost, we'll welcome home all our brothers. Our leaders have always believed in the one drop rule. Learned it from the white eyes. If you have one drop of white blood in you, you're a white man and we don't want any part of you.

"We had all we need of the white eyes. Indians do hold a grudge. My generation came up with a new one drop rule. Since we are running out of Indians, we suggested we turn it upside down. You got a drop of Indian blood in you, then you're our brother and we want to welcome you home.

" Brother as in brothers and sisters, you understand? We use brother in the inclusive sense, because Indian women have always been at the center of tribal activity. Saying brother makes us feel important, and our sisters let us. Besides, using sister gives the wrong image if you're an Indian, you know?"

" So far you haven't told me what you're doing out here and I keep thinking you're about to do that."

" We've spent a lot of time acting like white men. We've decided acting more like Indians is better. Minus the scalping, you understand. I bet you have nice hair … when you let it grow out," Jeremy said covetously. "Sorry, I can't help myself."

"I think I got some Indian blood in me from a ways back," Taz confessed. "My grandmother was half Cherokee. What's that make me?"

"Hell, you're my brother, brother. Welcome home to your Indian self," Jeremy said, sounding delighted. "Actually I was getting a little bored sitting out here in this teepee. Glad you came along and now that I know you're Indian, that whole hair thing has gone away."

"Who took my clothes off me?" Taz said, suddenly remembering he was naked.

"Don't look at me, cowboy. I don't do dudes."

"Who took my clothes? This isn't funny."

"You were lying out there in the rain, you understand. Morning Cloud and Walking Dove got you out of your duds. Sent them out to the Indian dry cleaners. They'll be ready once you've regained your senses. You ought to rest a bit. Hell, you play your cards right, and they fix up some pretty outstanding meals. They've been doing this for years. I'm relatively new at it."

"I feel funny lying here in a strange place without my clothes," Taz said.

" What tribe you from, my brother?"

"Cherokee. My grandmother was half-breed. Married my grand daddy. I told you that before. What kind of Indian are you?"

"You found me out. Always trying to be a shrink. Checking to see if you remember what you said five minutes ago. You did get hit in the head."

"Yes, I remember."

"Half blood is more correct in today's parlance. Breed is another of the white man's inventions to diminish our dignity, and yours, in this instance."

"I haven't been in very polite company for some time, so I'm a little rusty on my ethnic etiquette," Taz said.

"We try to accommodate our white brothers, but in the category of ethnic slurs, we got over it."

"I'm white or can't you see? My grandma's been dead for years." "Yeah, you're plenty white all right, but you've got Native blood. It's in your cheeks and hair. I didn't notice it before, because I was thinking of you as that fighting fool in Time magazine. Indians don't do all that well in the fighting department. That's why we need to get permission to visit our land. That's what fooled me for a minute. It shows up more when you get angry. You're kind of cute when you're angry, you know," Jeremy said, looking Taz over.

"I'm never cute and I fight because it is better than being dead. I don't got anything against anyone, except them rustlers, and I need my clothes. I got a score to settle."

"I can tell you're feeling better. What was your family life like?"

"The only thing I know about my old man is he was a mean son-of-a-bitch. I don't know anything about my mother. My grandmother sometimes took me when the old man was locked up."

"Doesn't matter. You're part Indian and we got to love you. Lucky for you we've got this new one drop rule. Under the old rule, you'd be dead meat. On account we caught you when you were unconscious. We have no fear of an unconscious white man."

"I'm not white, remember?"

"No, you aren't. That's according to our rules. They more humor us than mean anything. We lost the war. I'm sure you heard about it."

Taz laughed. Jeremy was funny. He'd never wondered anything about relatives. One father was all he could handle and never very well, but his grandmother had been kind when he was way young. He'd stayed with her when his father was away. He remembered her talking about being part Indian.

"I brought your things," a woman said as she slipped in through the flap at the front of the teepee. "All the rocks were muddy but we dried them over the fire. They might have a smoky smell. It's nice if you ask me."

"How'd you know I was ready to get dressed?" Taz asked.

"Oh, didn't he tell you? We're Indians. We know stuff."

"Thanks," Taz said, sitting up to slip into his shirt.

The women slipped back out.

"That's Sally Two Shirts. She runs the Indian dry cleaners and keeps us in clean clothes, especially in this really nasty weather. We may know stuff but we still can't predict the weather worth a damn," Jeremy revealed. "Someone's in hot water for scheduling the get-together during monsoon season."

"A lot of that going around," Taz said. "Why Sally Two Shirt?"

"I've always meant to ask her that. I really don't know. She's good with clothes though. Not easy to get anything dry in the rain."

"These are warm and they smell better than before you took them off me."

"Better check them for live coals."

"So why you being nice to me? You could have left me out there and not done anything. I wasn't your responsibility."

"Oh, it's our code. We help the helpless. Feed the foodless. House the houseless. You get the idea. Besides, the brand on the horse said you were one of the general's boys. Couldn't leave one of his boys out in the rain. We try to respect his ranch."

"You said something about sending for the general?"

"Yes, we saw all the signs. I've got scouts on the hill so the bad guys don't slip away from us. We won't do anything until Gen. Walker comes. He's a natural leader. We're just Indians. Unless they try to move those cows, then we'll have to discourage them. The braves want to mount an attack. Check out what kind of scalps they got on them. We won't lift them or anything, but we can think about what it would be like."

"It'll take hours to get the general up here. Those rustlers might be gone by then. We ought to go make sure they don't get away," Taz said, sounding like he was ready to go.

"They aren't going anywhere. The truck they're going to put the cattle on is stuck in the mud down near the old highway. General's house is only two miles over the ridge from where we found you. We told him there wasn't any hurry. He'll want to secure the truck first."

"Two miles. That's a half hour ride at a gallop," Taz explained.

"That's from the Mesa. The house is just over those hills, down in a small valley. It's six miles from the line shack, where you live."

"How do you know where I live?"

"We're Indians. We know everything. Besides we check the area out before we throw up a camp. Don't want the pony soldiers to come riding down on us while we're having our annual picnic."

"No wonder you guys lost. You don't take anything seriously."

"Crying isn't manly. Besides, if you can't laugh at the irony of camping out on our own land, what can you do?"

As Taz finished getting on his boots, a commotion was going on outside. Jeremy ducked out for a minute and ducked back into the teepee.

"The general's here. He's going to ride up to the rise overlooking where the outlaws are staying out of the rain. He's going to let us ride down on them. I've got to get my feathers on so we can do a respectable Indian raid."

"Sounds like a show I don't want to miss," Taz said.

" The general says those boys will hold up in that cabin. My braves bet they'll run like scared rabbits, once they get a look at us. We're going to steal their horses first. Get them on foot. What do you think they'll do?"

"This has got to be worth watching," Taz said. "The guy that hit me in the head is mine."

"You won't get any argument from me. We like seeing cowboys squaring off."

"The only thing that's going to be square is his ass is going to be square on the ground, when I finish with him."

"Your horse is at the front of the teepee. Couldn't dry that saddle after it sat in the rain for all that time. Sally Two Shirts put an Indian blanket on it for you. Keep your ass dry. No extra charge for that service."

"My ass has been wet before. I'll live, but thank her for me. We'll probably be going our separate ways once we finish this roundup."

"You think so? You aren't a little curious about your Indian roots?"

By the time Taz was back in his hat and on his horse, a dozen cowboys and an equal number of Indians were riding up to the top of the ridge a few hundred yards beyond the encampment. He mounted up and followed Jeremy as a half dozen women stood out beside the teepees watching the migration of cowboys and Indians.

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